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The Dark Knight Returns

darkknight_crop.jpgCourtesy of Warner Bros.

With The Dark Knight poised to take its place among the highest grossing movies of all time—and the statute of limitations of spoiler alerts solidly past—it’s time to consider what made this the most commercially successful movie of our decade. (Well, except for Shrek 2.)

(Consider this your spoiler warning.)

For all the hand-wringing about the movie’s politics, the most current aspect of the movie may well be the overstuffed plot, which contains at least four subplots—Commissioner Gordon’s faked death, the Chinese financial crime baron, the blackmailing corporate underling, and Alfred’s hand-wringing over Rachel’s Dear John letter—that could fill up an entire movie. More interestingly, the subplots come and go at odd moments, either popping up in medias res or dropping out halfway through the film with only backhanded resolution.

This isn’t a kind of storytelling American audiences are used to seeing—or at least not at the movies. Semi-episodic subplots, especially the emergence of a new villain in the third act, are more common to anime…or comic books. A six-issue comic series—the closest thing in scope to a movie—has to give each issue its own arc or it risks alienating someone who only picks up one issue at a time, so it's episodic by its very nature. It’s a serial medium, and each block has to carry its own weight.

More recently, the aesthetic has crept into television in shows like Heroes because of the same episodic issues, but Dark Knight is the first movie to embrace it so fully. It's a completely new way to write movies—the effect is something like watching The Godfather at double speed—but audiences were ready for it and the gamble paid off. And knowing Hollywood, we're about to start seeing it a lot more.